Sunday, May 15, 2005

With God on our side


America's surge toward religious McCarthyism could well wash away its biggest obstacle this week as Senate Republicans prepare to cast aside more than 200 years of procedural precedent by banning judicial filibusters. If they succeed, the price will be the system of checks and balances on which democracy delicately rests.

The Senate is poised to act because that is precisely what the Religious Right wants. Further concessions proposed by the Democrats, who in the past have blocked fewer than 5 percent of Bush's nominees, the lowest percentage in four administrations, couldn't slow the Republican assault on Senate rules. This ruling party, driven by the religious zealotry of its base, wants absolute control of every branch of government.

That's why the vote to keep the filibuster compares with the Nixon impeachment hearings as the biggest tests of U.S. democracy in at least the last half century. The outcome will depend on a half-dozen thus far uncommitted Republicans. And in an age when party line loyalty typically trumps public interest, I can't say I'm confident of a vote of conscience.

If Republicans succeed in stripping the right to filibuster from Senate rules, it's a safe bet that a parade of judicial nominees intent on eroding separation of church and state, banning abortion, curtailing the First Amendment, battering gay rights, and expanding the Patriot Act will soon march through the Senate to lifetime appointments. That is the real and radical agenda of a White House and its Christian Coaltion drivers, who ostensibly want to stop "activist" judges but actually want to end judicial independence in interpreting Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Other signs of an emerging religious struggle already abound.
  • The New York Times reported this week that a chaplain at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs was given orders to ship out to Japan after accusing her superiors "of using their positions to promote evangelical Christianity among the cadets." The chaplain, Capt. Melinda Morton, says her transfer was no accident; it came after she resisted pressure to denounce an outside report by a Yale Divinity School team that, according to The Times, found some chaplains at the academy "were insensitive to the religious diversity of the cadets."
  • Eighty years after the Scopes Trial dramatically established the validity of teaching Darwinian evolution in schools, the religious right is counter-attacking again. Districts across the country are increasingly enmeshed in debate over whether a new form of "science," called "intelligent design," should be mandated as well. Supporters of intelligent design insist it isn't creationism and isn't anti-science. But it is both. The web site of The Christian Post defines it this way: "Intelligent design is the theory that the complexity and organization of life are evidence of the living things having been designed, calling on an intelligent creator or designer that may be responsible for their complexity."
  • In response to a questions from ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos two weeks ago, preacher Pat Robertson said that he believes "activist judges" (read anti-faith judges, according to the Chrisitian Right) pose a more serious threat to American Democracy than Al Qaeda -- you know, the folks who flew planes into the World Trade Center.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union this week sued the federal government, arguing, according to The Boston Globe, that it violated the separation of church and state by funneling more than $1 million to a faith-based abstinence program. In its newsletter, the program, the Silver Ring Thing, told young people "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (is) the best way to live a sexually pure life."
Organized religion of any stripe has never been a dominant force in my life. But I've begun paying a lot more attention to it as this country fractures into two camps: Those who would use religion to bring people together and those who would use it to tear them apart.

Whether dropping in at a Sunday sermon, serving a meal to the homeless or sitting in the spell of a gospel concert, I've tried to spend my spiritual time among those who heal and build.
But 35 years ago, on a rain-soaked, two-lane road south of Knoxville, Tenn., I got a taste of what can happen when one man's godliness is misconstrued as The Answer for all.

With a college friend, I was hitchhiking from the Great Smoky Mountains to Nashville to visit a couple who had served as the informal ministry at a Colorado lodge at which I'd worked. Our first ride came from fellow in jeans and a checked, flannel shirt. He said he was a plumber, and he didn't wait long before he turned to me in the front seat, held me with a level gaze and asked: "Have you boys been saved?"

"Excuse me, sir?" I asked.

"Have you boys been saved? Have you taken Jesus into your heart?"

"Well, no sir," I mumbled.

He kept driving with his lefthand. But with his right he drew an imaginary horizontal line across the dashboard. "I've done some bad things in my life," he said. "I cheated on my wife and drank until she left me. But a few years ago I took Jesus into my heart, and it has made all the difference."

He paused.

"Boys," he said. patting his imaginary line. "I could kill you right now, and I'd go to Heaven and you'd go to Hell. Think about that."

Believe me, we did -- all 40 miles of that ride. And we thought about more.

To the young divinity student we were heading to visit in Nashville, religion and spirituality were a means of bringing people of multiple denominations together, of sharing good work and searching for higher meaning. His wife, an art student, spent much of the summer I worked with them stringing bead necklaces to give to friends. But to this plumber on the drive from the Smokies to Knoxville that morning, religion was a line in the sand. You either were with him or ... watch out.

In today's U.S. Senate, as lawmakers prepare to wipe out rules others have relied on for good or bad to protect minority rights, there are a number of signs that the plumber's way is in ascendancy -- and the rest of us had better watch out.


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